Robert Redfield proves he never should have been in charge of the CDC

Robert Redfield proves he never should have been in charge of the CDC
Image via Screengrab.

This week, former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield declared that he believes that COVID-19 originated in a lab. Also this week, the former head of Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, was booted from the board of the GlaxoSmithKline following charges of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct. Neither of these events says anything about the origins of the virus or the efficacy of the vaccines. But it does say something about the quality of the people Donald Trump hired to see America through a crisis.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, there were rumors and conspiracy theories about the origin of the disease. The simple fact that the first major outbreak occurred in the Wuhan region of China was enough to launch a thousand "biolabs" claims, and to give Trump fuel for endless racist memes that are definitely connected to the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. There were also claims that the virus had been circulating in humans much longer than then the official date of the last few weeks of 2019.

However, we know these things are not true. We've known this from before the pandemic was a pandemic. What Redfield's statements and Slauoi's dismissal make clear—again—is that Trump was more interested in appointing people to position who demonstrated loyalty to Trump, rather than any degree of competence for their role.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus was sequenced in January 2020, Analysis immediately showed that virus is, as the name implies, very similar to the SARS-CoV virus that causes the disease SARS. And both of them are in turn nearly identical to viruses that are endemic within bats. Specifically, to the family that includes horseshoe bats, which are found in tropical areas of Asia and Africa. The virus behind COVID-19 is the seventh coronavirus to have become infectious within humans. Three of those viruses can cause severe disease. Both previous coronaviruses that cause serious disease within humans came from bats. And by March 2020, scientists had a very good idea of SARS-CoV-2's origin; it was not a lab.

Redfield's entire basis for claiming that COVID-19 didn't come straight from bats is that it's too infectious. In his interview with CNN, the former CDC director insists that it takes time for viruses "to figure out" how to become more efficient in humans. And to some extent, that last part is true; viruses do tend to become more contagious over time. That is, in fact, the only evolutionary pressure on viruses.

However, that statement ignores a huge amount of evidence about COVID-19. For one thing, the virus is definitely not human specific. Cases have been found of it spreading to close relatives like gorillas, as well as far more distantly related mammals like tigers and domestic pets. COVID-19 is not, or at least did not start out as, a human specialist. Its tool kit of proteins allow it to infect almost any mammal. What has happened over time—as we've seen with the European variant, the UK variant, the South African Variant, and the Brazilian variant—is that SARS-CoV-2 is constantly becoming better at spreading from person to person.

Something like that likely happened at the beginning, as well. In fact, people may have become exposed to, or even infected by, versions of the SARS-CoV virus for years before a version appeared that was infectious person-to-person. Imagine a situation in which people exposed to horseshoe bats were frequently getting infected with a precursor virus, and producing trillions of copies … but none of them were efficient at spreading that infection to another person. Then, one day late in 2019, someone gets infected by this same virus, and a slight mutation does allow the state of human-to-human spread. This is very likely the actual situation.

One other thing we know is that the version of SARS-CoV-2 which spread around the world and causes COVID-19 wasn't circulating in the human population for an extensive period. We know that because all the early cases of COVID-19 that have been sequenced were almost genetically identical. That would not have been the case had the disease been widely circulating in the human population for months in advance of the recognized outbreak.

There are still serious questions about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 that need to be answered. For example, was there an earlier, related version of the virus, one that did not cause severe disease, which circulated among humans previous to 2020? This might account for reports of antibodies similar to those generated by SARS-CoV-2 showing up in blood samples outside of China in November of 2019.

Did the virus jump straight from bats to humans, or did what this particular virus percolate first in some "intermediate host" like the poor beleaguered pangolin, or in something as commonly raised and eaten as rabbits? Bats have unusual immune systems which makes them a unique viral reservoir, so it's important to know if these diseases are making a direct leap from bats, or if the "infects just about any mammal" feature of COVID-19 developed elsewhere.

These are exactly the sort of questions that are currently being addressed by the World Health Organization. It began an investigation of the origins of COVID-19 in 2020. That investigation has issued an initial report, a more extensive updated report, and a final report is scheduled to appear within days.

All of these reports, and all of the analysis that has been published, is in agreement on one thing: SARS-CoV-2 shows exactly the sort of structure that might have been expected from natural evolution from related viruses, and none of the fingerprints that might have been expected were that virus manipulated in a lab. Redfield's claims about scientists working with viruses to make them more contagious in order to make them easier to study, simply make no sense. How well virus is transmitted person to person has nothing at all to do with how easy it is to replicate that virus in a lab. And if Redfield is going to fall back on "I'm a virologist," he should be made to explain that basic flaw in his reasoning.

What Redfield is saying doesn't match the scientific data. It does, however, exactly match claims made by Donald Trump in April 2020. Trump became obsessed over the idea of "proving" that COVID-19 originated in a lab. He made such charges during those daily rant sessions that replaced functional briefings on the pandemic, and he instructed agencies—likely including Redfield—to get out there and find the proof he wanted. They didn't find that proof.

In response to Redfield's strange insistence on supporting a theory that's not just without evidence, but contrary to the evidence, Dr. Anthony Fauci stopped short of slapping down the former CDC chief. However, he made it clear that there was nothing unusual about the idea of a virus that had circulated in Wuhan through November and December becoming highly contagious by the time the outbreak took off in January.

What's apparently been forgotten now that Redfield is "the former director of the CDC" in every article or interview where he appears, is that Redfield never should have held that position in the first place. His biggest claim to fame was insisting that the Department of Defense conduct a huge program of HIV screening, not with the intent of helping anyone found infected, but as a means of purging LGBTQ+ people from the military. Redfield saw HIV infection as a sign of "immorality." He then followed this up with a program supporting an HIV treatment that didn't work.

At the CDC, Redfield was complicit in consistently weakening guidelines, and making it more difficult for scientists at the agency to put forward facts. And as late as September, he was telling Americans there would not be any COVID-19 vaccines until late 2021 (to Redfield's credit, he was also telling Americans that the same effect could be achieved if everyone wore masks).

Meanwhile, in seemingly unrelated news, Moncef Slaoui, who led Trump's Operation Warp Speed, was "terminated" from the board of his former employer after charges of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct. The allegations were investigated by GlaxoSmithKline, which says that it's investigation upheld the charges against Slaoui.

"Dr. Slaoui's behaviors are wholly unacceptable. They represent an abuse of his leadership position, violate company policies, and are contrary to the strong values that define GSK's culture."

Slaoui, at least, seemed to have a career that justified some level of trust when it came to appointing him to a high position in Trump's vaccine effort. However, his greatest achievements at GSK seem to have been in guiding the company in taking over other pharmaceutical firms. Once in charge of Operation Warp Speed, Slaoui took an approach that seemed to guarantee a vaccine shortage. Not only did OWS fail to secure enough vaccine for America, its largest investments were $1.6 billion for the Novavax vaccine, which is still not available, and $2.1 billion for a vaccine from Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline. That vaccine was sent back to square one in December, when it turned out to not generate a sufficient immune response.

At best, Slaoui made a huge mistake. At worst, this represents huge corruption from a former executive who still controls $10 million in GlaxoSmithKline stock. "I won't leave those shares," said Slaoui before giving his old company $2.1 billion, "because that's my retirement."

Retirement sounds like a good idea … for both Slaoui and Redfield. When CNN is looking for scientists who can shine some light on the COVID-19 vaccine, these two are among the last they should question.

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